Chapter 4

Origins of the mobile Moonport

Ambitious Plans and Limited Space

The original commitment of the Saturn program to a Cape Canaveral launching site was for the research and development launches only.* A launch site for operational missions remained an open question long after construction started on LC-34. Four major questions were involved: Would blast and acoustic hazards require an isolated - perhaps offshore - launch pad for larger Saturn rockets? If not, could the pads be safely located on the coast of Florida or elsewhere - Cumberland Island, Georgia, perhaps? Would the Saturn become America's prototype space rocket? If so, how many Saturn launches per year would be required? In the midst of these questions was one stern reality: Cape Canaveral was running out of launching room.

Map of The Crowded Cape

The Crowded Cape.

By early 1960 the Cape resembled a Gulf Coast oil field. Launch towers crowded the 16 kilometers of sandy coastline with less than a kilometer of palmetto scrub separating most of the pads. The busy landscape testified to the recent advances in America's space program, but the density of the launch pads posed a problem for NASA and Air Force officials. Launch programs were under way for Titan, Polaris, Pershing, and Mercury; plans for Minuteman and Saturn were well along. A Department of Defense management study, prepared in April 1960, reported that the Atlantic Missile Range was "substantially saturated with missile launching facilities and flight test instrumentation."1 This seconded a 1959 congressional study that criticized the range's severe shortage of support facilities.2 With the siting of the second Saturn launch complex (complex 37) near the northern boundary of the range, launch officials were running out of real estate.

The lack of room at the Cape did not deter Marshall Space Flight Center personnel from preparing plans for 20, 50, even 100 Saturn flights a year. The Army's failure to carry out Project Horizon and put a squad of men on the moon had not dulled Hermann Koelle's enthusiasm (Chapter 1-5). Now under NASA, his Future Projects Office was investigating earth-orbital space stations, a permanent scientific facility on the moon, a "switchboard in the sky" to serve communications satellites, and manned exploration of Mars. The last project would extend into the 1980s and involve sending several spaceships to that planet.3

NASA's ability to implement Koelle's plans depended upon the development of the launch vehicle in Huntsville. With the Saturn C-1 off the drawing boards, Huntsville planners were working on Saturn C-2. This threestage rocket was to use the two stages of the C-1 configuration and insert a new second stage incorporating Rocketdyne's J-2 engine. A cluster of four J-2s, fueled by liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen, could produce 3,520,000 newtons (800,000 pounds of thrust), giving the C-2 a total of 10,428,000 newtons (2,370,000 pounds of thrust). The C-2 could carry a payload 2.5 times that of the C-1; large enough to send a 3,630-kilogram manned spacecraft to the vicinity of the moon, that payload would still be far short of what was needed for a direct ascent lunar landing (flying one spacecraft to the moon, landing, and returning to earth). An alternative to direct ascent was the use of earth-orbital rendezvous. This scheme involved launching a number of rockets into earth orbit, assembling a moon rocket there, and then firing it to the moon. NASA officials estimated that an earth-orbital rendezvous would take six or seven C-2 launches to place a 3,630-kilogram spacecraft on the moon, nine or ten launches for a 5,445-kilogram spacecraft. With this in mind, Koelle warned Debus at a 15 June 1960 meeting that such programs might require as many as 100 C-2 launches annually.4

Debus considered Koelle's projections plausible. Future Projects Office charts indicated that the cost per launch vehicle might drop as low as $10 million at the higher launch rate. If the space program received 3% of the annual gross national product for the next two decades, the American launch program could reach 100 vehicles per year.5 A launch rate of such magnitude seemed unrealistic to other Launch Operations Directorate (LOD) members in light of their experience with the Redstone and Jupiter missiles - programs that had not exceeded 15 launches per year. Some doubted the Atlantic Missile Range's capability to sustain so large an operation, as well as the nation's willingness to fund it. Aware of the impact his program would have on LOD, Koelle asked Debus to determine the highest possible firing capability for Saturn from the Atlantic Missile Range.6

There was general agreement within LOD that launch procedures at complex 34 could not satisfy the Future Projects Office plans. Debus and his associates estimated that LC-34 could launch four or five vehicles per year, depending upon the degree to which checkout was automated. This allowed two months for vehicle assembly and checkout on the pad and a month for rehabilitation after the launch. With its two pads, LC-37 could handle six to eight launches annually.7 The two complexes together barely satisfied Koelle's lowest projection for the C-2 study (12 launches annually); 48 Saturn launches per year would require at least 10 launch pads. Since the protection of rockets on adjacent pads might entail a safety zone of nearly 5 kilometers, a Saturn launch row could extend 48 kilometers up the Atlantic Coast. Purchase of this much land would be a considerable expense, and the price of maintaining operational crews for 10 pads would eventually prove even more costly. Limited space, larger launch vehicles with new blast and acoustic hazards, a steeply stepped-up launch schedule - all combined to set up a study of new launch sites for the Saturn. How and where to launch the big rocket?

* In mid-1960, 10 R&D launches were scheduled. LC-34 was to launch the first four Saturn C-1 shots (testing the booster). Six subsequent C-1 R&D missions with upper stages would be launched from a modified LC-34 and from LC-37. The latter complex would also be used for an undetermined number of C-2 R&D shots. Operational launches were still very tentative; a NASA Headquarters schedule in late 1960 called for 50 C-1 and C-2 launches between 1965 and 1970, 20 of them concerned with the Apollo program (reentry tests, earth orbital missions, and circumlunar missions).

1. House Committee on Science and Astronautics, Report on Cape Canaveral Inspection, 86th Cong., 2nd sess., 27 June 1960, p. 1.

2. House Committee on Science and Astronautics, Management and Operation of the Atlantic Missile Range, 86th Cong., 2nd sess., 5 July 1960, p. 4.

3. Francis L. Williams interview.

4. David S. Akens, Saturn Illustrated Chronology (MSFC, Jan. 1971), pp. 7-8; J. P. Claybourne, Saturn Project Office, memo, "Saturn C-2 Configurations," 6 July 1960; NASA, "A Plan for Manned Lunar Landing" (Low Committee report), 7 Feb. 1961, pp. 7-13, figs. 4, 7, NASA Hq. History Office.

5. Interview with Debus by Benson, 16 May 1972; H. H. Koelle, "Missiles and Space Systems," Astronautics 7 (Nov.1962): 29-37.

6. Claybourne, "Saturn C-2 Configurations," 6 July 1960.

7. DDJ, 24 Apr. 1961.

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